- The Washington Times - Monday, May 31, 2004

Will journalists flounder or shine in a terrorist attack?

The Department of Homeland Security wants to ensure the latter if the unthinkable occurs.

Though journalists may have a public reputation for hysteria and overblown coverage, the DHS considers the press corps “overlooked first responders.”

In July, the agency will host “the first-ever working session” between the news media and government information officials to help the two sides work in tandem for the public good. The agency plans nine more sessions in the next year for journalists around the country.

It is a delicate business. The press hankers for open and instant access to information, no matter how sensitive it is; DHS and other agencies must keep an eye on national security and public safety.

The answer, DHS says, lies in productive dialogue.

The session will “provide journalists and state and local public officials with the tools and contacts needed to report complicated but life-saving information in the event of a terrorist attack,” said DHS Secretary Tom Ridge in a recent statement.

The National Academy of Science, the National Academy of Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council have promised straightforward information on terrorist threats, plus “an instant pool of trusted experts,” for the press, according to spokesman William A. Wulf, president of the engineering group.

“The media is often blamed for sensationalizing. But armed with accurate information, presented well, these overlooked first responders can serve to calm the public, promote rational reactions and save lives,” he added.

The July session will be held in Chicago, to be followed by “interactive workshops” in nine other cities, including Miami, Atlanta and Boston.

These efforts to forge alliances are not the first.

After September 11, the nation’s Internet, cable and broadcast industries embarked on a two-year initiative with the Federal Communications Commission to build a telecommunications strategy if America were attacked again. By the close of a final meeting last December, the group had established 500 “best practices” to protect and/or restore broadcasting in an emergency.

The low-profile Media and Security Reliability Council, established two years ago to secure “optimal reliability, robustness and security of broadcast” in a disaster, has some high-profile members, including News Corp. chief Rupert Murdoch, NBC President Robert Wright and Michael Eisner of Disney, which owns ABC, among 40 others.

During its annual convention in April, the Radio-Television News Directors Association sponsored “Homeland Security: Is Your Newsroom Ready?” a session to help broadcast journalists respond to a terrorist attack.

“How do we inform the public without alarming them?” Mr. Ridge asked conferees, telling them they were “the eyes and ears of democracy.”

Mr. Ridge noted, “The terrorists are resolute, but we are more so. They plan and prepare — and so must we.”

c Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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